Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I am Gomer. (and so are you!)

This past weekend I had the privilege of preaching at a friends wedding. It was a destination wedding, and so no one had a home church to go to. So since the wedding was on Sunday afternoon, the bride and groom organized a church service Sunday morning for all the wedding guests, and I was the preacher.

I chose Hosea 2:14 and following as my text, but generally spoke about three whole story of Hosea. It seems like an unlikely choice of text for a wedding weekend, particularly if you know how great the two people getting married are. Why talk about a guy who marries a prostitute? But as I promised them at the beginning, this story has a happy ending.

The little morality play acted out by Hosea, in marrying Gomer, then having kids, then her leaving, and Hosea going out to find her, and buy her back, and bring her home, is, of course, the story of the gospel. We are represented by Gomer. We are sinners, an unfaithful bunch of people, who offend our God, and leave him repeatedly, despite his love for us. We are hopeless. We need a Hosea. And the good news of the gospel is that we have a Hosea, one whose name literally means salvation. God is like the husband who though sinned against in the most grievous way, will still go out and find his lost wife. He hunts us down. He will not allow us to get our own way, when our way means leaving God to pursue lesser pleasures.

The story of Hosea is a representation, in the starkest way possible, of the grace of God in the gospel.

But, being that it was the day of a wedding, I also tried to make some application to our own marriages. Of course, in the story, one member of the marriage represents sinners, and the other represents God. In our own marriages we have a different problem. We are all Gomers. We are all sinners, who sin against the Lord, but also against one another. We are all prone to wander, and we all hurt our spouses, in profound, and personal ways from time to time. What are we to do if we are both Gomers?

First, of course, this means we all need salvation from the ultimate Hosea! But there is also help here for our marriages. If we are all Gomer, then we also all need to play the part of Hosea to one another. Hosea 3:1 records what God commanded Hosea, "Go, again, love your wife, though she is loved by another.... as the Lord loves Israel." Or, as I like to summarize it for our sakes, "Go, again, love your wife, although she is imperfect, does not live up to your expectations.... just like the Lord loves you."

And it doesn't just go one way, wives need to love their husbands in the same way, loving them again, although we are imperfect, just like the Lord loves us. In our marriages we have an opportunity in every day life to demonstrate the grace of God in the gospel to one another. By loving each other purely as an act of grace, even when we deserve something else, and to do so because that is the way that God has loved us.

Marriage is a small scale stage on which we can act out the drama of the gospel. We do this for the sake of the other, and for the sake of the watching world. So that they can see how we love each other. And maybe they will ask why in the world did you not consign him to the doghouse for the evening after what he did to you? And we will tell them that God has never consigned us to the doghouse. He loves us. Again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Forgiving Love

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy…”

Ran across that quotation by Reinhold Niebuhr in Christianity Today. For someone who reads their Bible it’s not particularly surprising—Jesus said it long ago (Matthew 6:12, Matthew 18:21-35) and Christians ethics is based on the concept.

No, I shouldn’t call it a concept… It’s something more real and more animating than your everyday concept. Those who know the reality of God’s forgiveness know the power of words such as these: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:30). And what a weighty thing it is to have words like these in your mouth when you approach a holy God: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

So even though the quotation isn’t surprising, it is profound. And, if you are having trouble forgiving someone, it is also very practical. People aren’t going to find forgiveness possible if they don’t see their own need for forgiveness.

But don’t stop reading yet. The best part of this short post is this…

What is amazing about the God who saves, the God described in the pages of Scripture, is that He forgives freely.

God made provision for our salvation not because He knew He Himself needed forgiveness but out of a freely given mercy. People who think they are perfect don’t forgive well; but God in His perfection forgave those who hated His perfection. He still does to this day.

And Jesus, God in the flesh, forgave those who hated and abused Him—not because He needed forgiveness, but in order to provide forgiveness.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Three More Things Ken Thinks

1. I think that 1 Peter 2:9-10 summarizes the meaning of life well. It shows us that our job is to glorify God, enjoy Him forever, and share Him with others. Oh, and it goes something like this: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."

2. I don't understand why it can be so challenging for a church to grow through new conversions. Aren't the fields white for harvest?

3. I think that this post by Ray Ortlund is a good one. He says that Reformed people should be fun to be around.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Search for Insignificance

So last weekend, the news channels told me repeatedly, there was this insignificant pastor of an insignificant congregation who wanted to burn a book. And so this insignificant pastor of this insignificant congregation received far more media attention than he deserved, because everyone should have realized that both he and his congregation were utterly insignificant. After all, they only have 30 or 40 people attending the church.

It so happens that I was once an assistant pastor at a small church. That church was so small and, therefore, insignificant, that I will need to pass over those years in silence.

But just two weeks ago, I attended the memorial service of a retired pastor. His congregation had apparently been extremely small. In fact, I had never personally met the pastor (and with a congregation so small, what would have been the point really?) But what was so amazing about that memorial service were the people who travelled far distances to pay their respects, to speak about how this pastor led them to faith in Christ, to express appreciation for the long hours this pastor poured into their lives.

At one point in the evening, as people were joyfully sharing their appreciation, it became evident that many of these people had recently been on missions trips and had shared their own faith in numerous ways. One man, a physician, travels across the globe every year in order to serve a very needy (and no doubt insignificant) population.

This pastor also had children and grandchildren who loved the Lord and served Him, too. In summary, the fruit of this man's life was abundant. His legacy was deep, lasting, and encouraging. I've never been at a memorial service filled with as much joy as I was that evening. It was as if the curtain between earth and heaven was very, very thin.

I am not surprised that TV and radio personalities judge a pastor's significance by the size of his congregation. They no doubt judge their own significance by their audience, come to think of it. But I can't help but think of that day when we stand before our God, and we see so many insignificant people cheered into the presence of God... and we see far too many superstar pastors and megapersonalities ushered to the back row. Or worse, shown the exit door altogether.

What is man's chief purpose? To glorify and enjoy God forever. Let's keep forever in view, or else we may be doomed to insignificance ourselves.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fellowship and Forgiveness

At the end of the Lord's Prayer there are a few verses that are pretty difficult to understand. Namely, "but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." -Matt 6:15.

Yikes. Those are difficult words. Why would Jesus say such a thing? Do we loose our salvation if we fail to forgive everybody who wrongs us?

First of all. No. And second of all, the fact that we know we are not saved by our own ability to perfectly forgive everybody else is exactly what makes this a difficult verse to interpret. But if Jesus doesn't mean that we are saved via forgiving others, what does he mean?

Right in the middle of the Lord's Prayer itself, Jesus has taught his disciples to pray asking that God forgive their sins, as in fact, we forgive others. Its important to remember that Jesus is not teaching us "the sinner's prayer." This is not a request for salvation, and so it is not the first time the pray-er of the prayer will have asked for forgiveness.

Part of becoming a Christian is repenting of our sins, asking for forgiveness. And when we do, we have assurance that we are forgiven for ALL of our sins, past, present and future. They will never stand in the way of our relationship with God again. So why then, does Jesus still teach his disciples to regularly pray prayers of repentance, seeking the forgiveness of their sins?

I think it goes back to something I wrote about some months ago. We have two relationships with God. Its true. I have both a legal relationship with God, and a personal relationship. The legal relationship relates to my justification. It means I am saved, adopted, cleansed, accepted in Christ, and nothing can ever change this. It is done. But I also have a personal relationship with God. And like all personal relationships, it needs to be maintained by frequent visits, by communication, by repenting of wrongs. This relationship can be hindered by sin, and so I need to repent regularly.

Its just like my relationship with Aubrey. Legally, we are married. We are man and wife, and nothing can ever change that. There is great peace in knowing this. But we also have a personal relationship. And this relationship requires constant maintenance. It requires that we communicate clearly, and spend time together, build a life together, and most importantly, that we ask each other for forgiveness when we have wronged one another. (and that we forgive when asked!)

1 John 1:6-10 teaches all about how our fellowship with God is maintained by repentance, and forgiveness of sins.

But getting back to the Lord's Prayer. This is a prayer that Jesus teaches to his disciples for their regular use. So when he teaches them to ask for forgiveness on a regular basis, he is not talking about their legal relationship with God. Rather, he is teaching them how to maintain an unobstructed personal relationship. I think the same thing holds true for thinking about these difficult verses, 14-15. He is not teaching that if we do not forgive those who wrong us, that our legal relationship (salvation) is in doubt. Rather, he is saying that if we harbor grudges, by failing to forgive others, that our fellowship (personal relationship) with God will be broken. Sin obstructs fellowship. God will wait to forgive us until we have repented of our grudge and forgiven others. But when we do repent of our unforgiveness, God is faithful and he is quick to forgive us, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and to restore us to the intimacy of fellowship which his children enjoy!

Fun fact: Thesis #1 of Martin Luther's 95: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ commanded men to repent, he intended that the entire life of believers be characterized by repentance."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Three Things Ken Thinks

1. The next generation is vitally important. I recently read statistics that by the end of this year, 50% of the world’s population will be under the age of 25. Meanwhile, my sister tells me that her daughter is teaching a kindergarten class in which only 4 out of 25 students are from a two parent home. She is not in the inner city by the way. Ministry to kids is important, strategic… and yet somehow I believe that God’s love toward these children has nothing to do with strategy.

2. I hope you’ll bring your kids to church and send them to Sunday School (or "LiquidFire" or whatever your church offers), yet Proverbs 22:6 - “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”- means so much more than this. Our children need to see that our faith is a very real, and in fact non-negotiable, part of our lives. They need to see that we are willing to sacrifice for what we believe, that we follow Jesus through difficult times and obey Him when it’s painful or risky to do so. Also, Deuteronomy 6 teaches that when we speak about our God to our children, they need to perceive that our life story is inseparably bound to God’s salvation. I pray that I will set this example and for God’s saving grace in my son’s life.

3. The “regulative principle,” the (correct) teaching that we should only worship God as he has commanded in Scripture, sets Protestants apart from Roman Catholicism, theological liberalism, and other false religions. It also helps us to look at our own hearts and see if we are worshiping God really, or if we have made a game out of worship. But I think that the regulative principle has not proven as helpful for comparing worship styles within evangelicalism. Biblical worship is more theocentric and, at times, more ordered (liturgical?) than some would practice; yet more exuberant and spontaneous than others would practice. Unfortunately, the term “regulative principle” gets in the way when it becomes a badge of honor rather than, well, a principle employ with teachable hearts. Under the word of God, we need to learn from one another how to fully enjoy and glorify God. Because He's great, and greatly to be praised.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Greater than the Sabbath

I wanted to say a few more things about my third thought from the other day. Not just because this has been an enforced topic de jour for me lately, but because it is necessary that we continue the Biblical-Theological conversation on these matters. Theology is done in community, and I write out these thoughts to allow ya'll to contribute to them.

In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the topic of discussion is "entering God's rest." The main point being made is that the promised land of Canaan is not the "rest" that God provides for his people, a better rest is now available in Christ. The key word in the passage is the word "Today." As in, when do we enter into God's rest? Today! The word comes from the passage from Psalm 95 which is quoted in Hebrews 3. And the word "today" is quoted FIVE times (Heb 3:7, 13, 15, 4:7 2x). The point is, that even though Palestine was occupied by the Romans, and the book of Hebrews might well have been written to believers nowhere near Jerusalem, still they were able to enter into God's rest Today!

How? By faith. Entering God's rest did not mean relocating to God's promised land, it meant trusting in Christ. Heb 4:3 emphasizes that the way of entering God's rest is by faith. The physical promised land was only a sign and a shadow of the reality which was provided by Christ.

When? Today. How? By faith. These are the key ideas.

The way he brings the Sabbath into the discussion is interesting. In 4:1-3 he is arguing that some have failed to enter God's rest because of unbelief, but that we who have believed have entered it. He then cites a verse out of Psalm 95 about God swearing that unbelievers shall not enter his rest. This brief mention of "God's rest" leads to the mention of God resting on the Sabbath day in the creation story. At this point, the sabbath doesn't really play an important part in the argument, it is just a description of the quality of God's own rest. The author goes on establishing his main point the the promised land was not God's ultimate gift of rest to his people, rather God's rest is found in Christ, is entered into by faith, and can be entered "today."

So then. In verses 8 and 9 he's bringing his argument in for a landing. Verse 8 says, "For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on." This just summarizes his argument to this point. And the day God spoke of, is of course, "today!" Then verse 9, "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God." This is also just summary, he's been making this point for the last 21 verses that there is still rest available for God's people even though the promised land is unavailable. The rest is given in Christ. In this summary he characterizes the rest as "sabbath rest." This makes sense in light of 4:4, where he also characterizes God's rest as 'sabbath rest.' The fact that he calls it "sabbath rest" does not mean that it is available only on the sabbath. It is a sabbath-like rest that is available every day to the one who believes.

The key themes are the same. God has given us rest through Christ. You enter it by faith. And it is available 'today.' And now we also know it is characterized as being God's own sabbath rest.

What this passage most emphatically does not mean, is that the institution of the weekly sabbath is still in force. Do you see how that actually has nothing to do with the topic at hand? The promised land and the OT sabbath (itself a reflection of God's own rest) were both shadows of the ultimate rest that God would provide for his people in Christ. A rest that would never be invaded or taken away. Let us strive to enter this rest.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three Things Jeff Thinks

1. I have a slightly new perspective on topical sermons. In the past, I've been somewhat of an exegetical sermon snob, looking down my nose at topical sermons as being less biblical. However, I've been preaching topical sermons lately. I've been doing a series on the Lord's Prayer, and taking it one verse at a time. So the phrase "give us this day our daily bread" led to a sermon on the topic of supplication. And this week, the phrase, "forgive us our debts..." has led to a sermon on praying prayers of confession and repentance.

2. I'm taking a new class at the local seminary this fall on the topic of New Testament Apocalyptic. I'm looking forward to learning more about this perplexing genre.

3. In a discussion recently someone asked me if I believe that the Old Testament teaches the principle that one day in seven is holy to the Lord. I said no. Instead I believe that the OT presents the command that the seventh day is the Sabbath. You'd be pretty hard pressed to find where the OT teaches a "principle" that one seventh of our time is to be holy, as though God were concerned with fractions, and the Israelites would have been at equal liberty to observe their Sabbath every Tuesday. The fourth commandment is a command, and it specifies that the Seventh day is the Sabbath. Its not about the proportion of our time, its about the day the Sabbath is to be observed on. Turning it into a "one-day-in-seven" principle is special pleading indeed. So in the NT when the first believers started worshiping on the first day of the week, they were consciously out of step with one of the ten commandments. What the NT never does, is to teach that the Sabbath has moved, or that Sunday can now be considered the Christians version of the Sabbath. Instead it says that the Sabbath was a shadow which pointed to the reality which is only found in Christ (Col 2). Christians are expected to worship on the Lord's Day (Sunday, the first day of the week) because that is the day Jesus rose from the dead. Christians are free to worship on the Lord's Day because something greater than the Sabbath is here (Heb 3-4).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Not Without My Hiram

You may have heard something about King Solomon and a temple.

In the Old Testament books of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, we read that God did not allow David to build a temple but promised that his son Solomon would build one (2 Samuel 7). We read about this building project which took place under Solomon in 1 Kings 6 and 7.

When that building project is described, a man named Hiram is introduced. He’s a “worker in bronze…full of wisdom, understanding, and skill for making any work in bronze” (1 Kings 7:14). These are lofty words of praise, proving that you don’t have to be a king or priest to be recognized by God. It’s what we call the priesthood of all believers—God gives gifts of all kinds, and what matters is using them to His glory.

So, as you read along in 1 Kings 7, Hiram’s work is described in some detail. The Bible tells us, for example, the height and circumference of some bronze pillars that Hiram made. It tells us about lattices, basins, pots, shovels, all sorts of things. It goes on for a whole page and, if you’ve read the Bible, you know that there’s a lot of words on each page.

Personally, it’s tough reading for me. Nothing is underlined in my Bible after that part about him being full of wisdom, understanding, and skill. I even had to spell check “circumference” because I haven’t used that word since geography—oops, I mean geometry—class in 10th grade.

So I was thinking, this may not be very interesting to me but I’m sure it’s pretty interesting to a metalworker. Or, for that matter, to anyone who works daily with their hands, building stuff—unlike me.

Then you get to the end of this chapter that laboriously details Hiram’s work and you read this: “Thus all the work that King Solomon did on the house of the Lord was finished” (1 Kings 7:51).

Great work, “Solomon”!

“He gave gifts to men” – Ephesians 4:8.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The hardest prayer to pray

Tonight I was over at a friends house for dinner. As we were getting ready we were chatting about church, and I mentioned that I had just started a short series preaching through the Lord's Prayer. I had started last week, so today covered "Your kingdom come, your will be done."

My friends wife immediately responded with conviction, "ooh, that's the hardest part." I was confused at first, and asked why she thought so. But the reason I was confused was because I was coming at the issue from the perspective of the preacher, and as a preacher, I wasn't to worried about this part. It's the whole "if you don't forgive others, God won't forgive you" part that has me worried. That's gonna be a doozy to preach on.

But my friend was commenting on the prayer from the perspective of one who prays. And she's right, it can be very humbling and difficult to pray "your will be done."

Our miscommunication simply highlights the particular difficulty of this passage. And that is, its not hard to understand, its just really hard to obey.

We know what the words mean, but to pray them in sincerity is difficult. It requires submitting our wills to God's, trusting that his way is always perfect, and he never gives his children anything less than the very best for them. Easy to believe in theory. Not always easy to practice.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Imagine That

One of just a few books I would recommend to anyone, anytime is "Lost in the Middle" by Paul Tripp. He apparently intended to write a book about middle age, but actually wrote a penetrating analysis of life's disappointments and biblical hope, and one which deserves to be read and re-read by everyone over the age of, say, 25.

In a chapter entitled "Towers to the Sky," Tripp discusses the death of our dreams. And along the way, he discusses the fact that our imaginations are fallen. Yes, it turns out that Genesis 3 affected even our imaginations. We do not dream the way we should, hope the way we should, or respond to life's changes as we should. There is too much of ourselves in our plans, aspirations, and expectations - and far too little of God.

I was looking at Isaiah 40 with this in mind, since this majestic passage of Scripture closes with these hopeful words:

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:30-31

This passage seemed to relate because it involves dealing with adversity - approaching the future with hope in God. Yet what struck me in Isaiah 40 was not these famous verses at the end. Instead, I was struck (in fact, struck down) by all the verses leading up to these...verses 1-29. This chapter proclaims God's eternal nature in contrast with man's; God's greatness in contrast to the microscopic significance of entire nations; and the weighty, holy reality of God in contrast to the emptiness and vanity of anything else we call "great." "The nations are a drop in the bucket... The nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or with what likeness will you liken him?" (vv.15-18)

An outline of Isaiah 40 might look something like this:
I. It's about God
A. It's all about God
B. It's all about God
II. It's about God
A. It's really all about God
B. It's really all about God
III. It's about God
A. It's all about God
B. It's all about God
a. Rely on Him and you'll be fine

Back to the imagination thing. One point Paul Tripp made in that chapter is that we should dream big dreams about God, and about our walk with God. We should not imagine the future with ourselves in the center, but with God in the center. So many of our personal hopes and aspirations need to be held to loosely. Over the history of the world billions of hopes and dreams have come crashing down... but God is still there.

The way we imagine our own futures will shift and change, sometimes causing a good deal of pain. But God will still be there. It's really all about Him.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Church, the church, and the Kingdom

Recently I was sitting through an exam, being administered by a committee of my denomination, to make sure I'm kosher. I wanted to share one part that especially stood out to me.

At one point I was asked to define the church. Interesting question, isn't it? Have you ever thought about that one? Well, thankfully, I had thought about it in preparation for the exam, and so I was ready with the following answer: The Church, before the law, under the law, and now under the gospel, is one and the same, and is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consists of all those who believe in him, together with their children.

Pretty good answer, huh? I sure thought so. But one person took issue with it. They were uncomfortable with the fact that I had identified the church and the kingdom of God as being the same thing. They thought of the kingdom of God as being bigger than the church. And in a sense they were right. The kingdom of God is bigger than the church, but it isn't bigger than The Church.

the church is, of course, standing for our own local churches. Whereas The Church is standing for the whole thing, the worldwide communion, crossing denominational lines, national borders, and any other arbitrary line you would like to draw.

Said committee member objected that, for example, when other committee member John Doe, who is a lawyer, goes to work pursuing justice for the oppressed, that's not church work, but it is Kingdom work.

Well sure, it's not the work of First Pres, or Second Pres, or Third, Fourth or Fifth Pres. But it is the work of The Church (aka the kingdom) worldwide. The work of The Church is not simply handing out bulletins and teaching Sunday school. The work of The Church is pursuing justice, loving mercy, caring for the widow and orphan, preaching the gospel to every nation, discipling, praying, loving your neighbor, giving out cups of cold water, relieving suffering, and standing up for what is right. Or, if I might put it this way, working for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

The work of The Church includes each member working at their vocation, using their gifts, and faithfully serving their creator whether they are actually in the church building or not. In this way we might say that 90% of The Church's work occurs outside the church!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finally Getting Something Useful Done

Think about the Apostle Paul. Here's a guy God used to plant churches, preach the gospel, produce inspired writings for the church, endure hostility, cast vision and receive visions. And he was basically a workhorse for the gospel.

So he's in prison, and there's not much he could do besides pray. But he didn't disdain prayer - in fact, he seemed to treasure it. Also, he didn't assume that the prayer bases were covered and therefore he could set the rest of the church to work on the "important" stuff - no, he urged prayer continually.

Colossians 4, written by an imprisoned Paul, has a few choice statements on prayer:

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Colossians 4:2-4

Keeping "watchful" in prayer is a key phrase. Jesus used it, too. I don't know how to define it, but I think I've experienced it... it is through prayer that God begins to move our hearts, direct us, even warn us. Paul could be highly strategic for the gospel without ever leaving his cell.

So can we.

So should we.

Another quick take from Colossians 4:

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. Colossians 4:12

We should not only be watchful in prayer, but also struggle in prayer.

And if you look at both these short passages, look at what flows from prayer: witness to others, maturity, assurance of the faith.

In short, let's pray. It's not just for those who don't have anything better to do.

Monday, August 2, 2010

All Things Good

The Bible continually calls us to praise God, who created everything. It even gives us ideas for how to do this. We should look at the oceans and the mountains and contemplate the power and strength of the God who made them. We should look at ourselves and ponder the knowledge and wisdom of the God who designed us. In the evening, on a clear night, look at the moon and stars and consider the God who is above and beyond all these.

Although the Scriptures frequently point us to the mountains, oceans, and stars, there are outskirts of God's creation that are also amazing. Deserts for example. Man, I love the desert. In the Bible, the desert (or "wilderness") is usually a metaphor. But even in that seemingly God-forsaken place, where things crawl, die, or beg for water, there is beauty. I know I'm in a minority, but I love the desert smells of heat and sand. I love the coyote-and-runrunner mountains and rocks that surround the desert. The Cactus is easily my favorite plant.

To appreciate the beauty of the desert, you need a few basic things. First, you need a good water supply. No one appreciates the desert when they're crawling through it; instead, they have mirages and wish for a better place. But if you have a good jug of water, or perhaps live in the desert where a water supply has been conveniently installed for folks like you--you can sit back and enjoy.

Oh, another thing you need is some shade, obviously. Standing out in the desert sun is wonderful, but everyone has their limit. A baseball cap might be all you need, or perhaps an air-conditioned house.

All this can be a wonderful metaphor for the way God cares for us in the wilderness, but what I really want to say is simply this. All of God's creation is spectacular, even those parts that get a little less play in the Bible. Because our God is a creative genius, an exquisite sculptor, and an unparalleled artist.

Our God is worthy of praise.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Love Missions Trips

Missions trips take many forms. I've been on teams that have visited slums, performed skits on the streets, witnessed to kids on spring break, built schools for deaf children, played basketball in the projects, hosted a Vacation Bible School, or combinations thereof.

Each of these trips have combined worship, work, witness, and (sorry, no "w" here) partnership with believers across the miles. For example, I just returned from our church's second project in the projects, which partnered us with a Brazilian and Hispanic church in Newark. In this case, partnership isn't even the right word--friendship (and pretty close friendship at that) is far more accurate. People from our churches are traversing up and down the East Coast to see one another at different points throughout the year, and of course all our teens have a dozen or more Newark Facebook friends.

So, here's what I love about missions trips: they provide a unique opportunity to experience the Christian life in its most distilled and undistracted form.

Here's what I mean. Over the course of, say, a week, the team works a spirit of worship and prayer. This is what God made us for! Check out Genesis 1 and 2 - we were made to be in relationship to God, and to one another, as we serve Him. Or consider the Great Commandment, Great Commission, or perhaps the New Testament as a whole. Or the life of Jesus. On a missions trip, all the pieces come together. And for a week or more, we get to experience what God made us for and what Jesus calls us to.

What I've found also is that this is a two-edged sword. Because a missions trip distills the Christian life down to its most basic priorities, we can easily experience angst as well as joy. We may see our sin and inability, our lack of genuine love, the no-worship zones of our hearts. But humility is a needed thing, and is the first step to seeing God forgive, transform, or soften, as the case may be.

I think these trips are especially important for young people, because it provides a template for what it means to serve Jesus Christ with all their lives. I've seen these trips serve as incredible turning points. I still remember the first trip I went on, how one of the principles was, "Before you do anything else, pray." So whenever there was a glitch, a problem, or an obstacle, we stopped to pray before we tried to work it out. That was formative; it stuck with me for the past 21 years.

One wisened teen said last week, when joy and enthusiasm for Jesus was running high, "It won't always feel this way. We'll have to go back to school and serve Jesus even when we feel all alone."


But I would add, "You know now, more than ever, that you're not alone. And that there is something more glorious to reach for."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Doctrine of Worry

The street between our theology and our lives is a two way street. Which is to say, our beliefs about God have and influence on the way we live our lives. But we can also drive the other way. The way we live our lives, shows something about what we believe to be true about God. But unfortunately, when we drive this direction, the systematic theology of our lives tends to look very different.

The Doctrine of Worry: The belief that God does not care about us as much as he cares about sparrows. The belief that either God does not have a good plan for us, or if he does, he is unable to bring it about. The belief that God, who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will somehow NOT along with him, graciously give us all things.

How to Apply: This doctrine ought to be applied whenever things don't go your way. For best results, begin to apply well in advance of any occasion in which you suspect things might not go your way. Remember to assume that your plan for your life is best, and that if God knows what's what, he will agree with you.

It's unfortunate how many of us subscribe to this doctrine. We might not acknowledge that we do, after all, it sounds ridiculous when you write it out. But remember, practical theology is a two way street, and we preach with our lives what we are unwilling to acknowledge with our mouths.

Some days this chapter is right up towards the front of the systematic of my life. That's embarrassing, and goes to show that no matter how well I can articulate the divisions of theology, I still have work to do in working my theology down into my heart. This happens best when the Spirit works the word of God into my heart. Then armed with this sword of the Spirit, I am more well suited to defend myself against lingering doubt and worry, a favorite tactic of the evil one.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Get on Yer Boots!!

I find it only slightly ironic that in Ephesians six, which is the classic description of spiritual warfare, as Paul is describing the suit of armor that Christians need to be equipped with, the necessary footwear is the "gospel of peace." If you are going to go to war with the evil one, you need to know that you are completely at peace with God.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18, "God, through Christ reconciled us to himself." Or again in Romans 5, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God."

In Ephesians 2, Paul explains slightly differently, but to the same effect. He begins by saying that we were once, like the rest of mankind, children of wrath, at enmity with God. But God is great in mercy, and he made us alive together with Christ.

Peace with god. We have it, by faith. It is because God has reconciled us to himself, in Christ. And our peaceful relationship that we now enjoy with God is secure, because it is based on the work of Christ. If we had peace with God only so long as our performance lived up to his expectations, we would be walking on eggshells, and there would be no peace. But it is based on the death of Jesus on the cross. The hostility has been put away once for all because our sins have been decisively dealt with and forgiven.

This is not only good news as far as the whole salvation issue is concerned, it is also an indispensable piece of our Christian armor. Our knowledge of the gospel of peace, the fact that our relationship with God is in good order, and securely so, is part of what protects us from the attacks and flaming darts from the evil one.

The evil one does not want you to know that you have peace with God. He would rather you take your eyes off of the cross, put them on yourself and your own performance, and begin to entertain all sorts of doubts as to the status of your relationship. If you are insecure in your relationship with God, the darts of the evil one can land with deadly accuracy. Temptations to sin will feel persuasive and the allure of doubt irresistible. But the Pauline counterattack to this guerrilla warfare is a deep, heartfelt knowledge of divine reconciliation through the gospel of peace.

Of course, it would be impossible to read through Ephesians (especially 2:11-22 and 4:1-7) without realizing that the peace purchased at the cross extends to human relationships as well. Because I have peace with God, and you have peace with God, therefore you and I have peace between us as well. Growing roots of bitterness and stirring up dissension between believers is a favorite tactic of the evil one, and the boots of gospel peace are necessary for us to maintain a very practical, gospel-based, believer-to-believer peace among us.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Strange Pew-fellows

Most American holidays are insignificant for the life of the church. Arbor Day, Valentines Day, President's Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Halloween, all of these come and go with nary a mention in my church. There are a few holidays, which are relatively insignificant as far as the liturgy goes, but which warrant a brief mention during the announcements. I'm thinking here of Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veteran's Day and New Years Day. None of these are Christian holidays, but we take the opportunity to note them, and wish well to those involved. Then you have Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, which all have great impact on the liturgy and life of a church.

But there is one American holiday in particular, which has a strange relationship with the church. I'm thinking of the fourth of July. Patriotism and Religion have always been strange pew-fellows, and the mixture has always made me uncomfortable. This year the issue was pushed to the fore, since the fourth fell on a Sunday. I would like to offer a few thoughts. I have intentionally waited a couple of weeks so that those who feel strongly about the issue might have the emotional distance necessary to consider the case anew.

In one sense, the fourth of July falling on a Sunday highlights the truth that each of us as human beings have a complex identity, that is made up of more than a single component. To use myself as an example, I am both a Christian and an American (also a husband, father, son, pastor, and many other things...). Of the two, I would identify primarily as a Christian, and secondly as an American. But of course, this is not to say anything amiss about America or my status as a citizen. I love this land, I feel a certain amount of patriotism and pride in living here, and unless God radically changes the direction of my life, I don't plan to move. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for living in this country at this point in time. I enjoy celebrating the fourth by eating a hot dog and watching fireworks.

But my identity as a Christian is much more significant for understanding who I am. I belong to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a member of the household of God, a part of the covenant family. And this family knows no boundaries, political or otherwise. It is an international family, composed of people who identify as citizens of all sorts of countries. This means for me, that I feel like I have more in common with a Mexican Christian or a Ghanaian Christian, than I do with an American who is spiritually lost.

So what are we to do when the fourth falls on a Sunday? Should we mention it? Should we sing the patriotic songs found in the far back of the hymnal?

I vote no. For two reasons. First, when we gather as the body of Christ, we have something so much more grand and glorious to engross ourselves in. We are gathering specifically as the church of Christ, in union with the saints throughout the world and across all the ages. We are not a civic organization, we are a gathering of the elect. This is a category that knows of no tie to political organizations or eras. When we come to church, the fact that most of us in the room are Americans is completely incidental.

Secondly, what would we say if a believer from Mexico, China, Peru or Kenya came to church on that Sunday, expecting to find a familiar culture of Christianity, and instead finding us enjoying our country rather than our covenant. I would be embarrassed to alienate a brother or sister in Christ by appearing to cherish our citizenship on earth as deeply as our citizenship in heaven.

Again, none of this should be taken as disrespect for our country or our history. I like our country, but I like the church even more. And as believers, our identity as members of the church will be far more eternally valuable than the fact that we were citizens of this particular nation.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Error We Usually Make

There is a story, somehow related to Martin Luther (I'm not sure how) about a man riding a horse. He was tired, and started slumping a bit to the left. As he got tireder and tireder, he slumped further and further, until all of a sudden he fell off the left side of the horse and landed in a heap on the ground. The man awoke with a start, and when he got back on the horse he solemnly pledged that he would never again fall of the left side of his horse. So he adopted a peculiar posture, leaning to the right. Of course, it wasn't long before he fell off the right side of the horse. He was so intent on not falling to the left, that he made the same error in the opposite direction. The goal, of course, is to ride the horse sitting straight up and down.

Many churches and theologies are like this hapless horseman. Especially those of us in the conservative branches of the church. We feel like the church fell off the liberal side of the gospel horse back in the mid-twentieth century, and we have seen the disastrous effects that caused. So now we are so committed to not doing that again, that we are leaning heavily towards the conservative side, and again we are in danger of falling off the horse, simply in the opposite direction. The goal remains being able to ride the gospel horse straight up and down.

How does one fall off the conservative side of the horse? A friend I was enjoying lunch with last week put it this way: Liberals tend to take away from scripture, conservatives tend to add to it, and both are equally bad.

Indeed. I thought this way of putting things was insightful, yet upon reflection so obvious as to hardly require explanation. Liberals have been taking away from scripture for years, no longer listening to its teaching on sexual ethics, the uniqueness of Christ, the resurrection, etc. Many of their churches can now be clearly seen lying in a heap in the ditch on the left side of the road.

Conservative churches, meanwhile, have been so afraid of that left ditch that we have built a hedge around the scriptural teachings to keep us from breaking them. To protect ourselves from sexual promiscuity, we have prohibited dancing. To protect ourselves from drunkenness we have prohibited all alcohol whatsoever. Now, of course, these prohibitions come with good intent. But the Bible says we are not to take away from it, or add to it. Is that a conservative church I spy in the right-hand ditch, lying in a heap while the gospel horse walks on unriden?

I am a conservative. Perhaps you are too, or perhaps you are a liberal (or perhaps you don't identify as either, the labels aren't really that important). Neither of us has yet perfected what it means to ride the gospel horse straight up and down. Neither our casting off of biblical burdens, nor our taking on of additional ones has taught us how to live in the freedom and joyous constraint of the biblical gospel. All of us must continually go back to the scriptures, find their level, and discern our own leanings.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

And now we address the concubines.

When King David flees from his son Absalom, who has conspired to overthrow his father, he naturally makes sure that all his loved ones (wives, children, servants) are kept safe. Basically, they flee with him. And he puts his trust in God during this tragic time, as you can see for yourself by reading Psalm 3 or 2 Samuel 15.


But David is far from perfect. In fact, let's use the term he would use: he's a sinner. You can see all sorts of his faults on display in 2 Samuel 11-14. Specifically, it's 2 Samuel 12:13 where David admits his sin, though he also wrote a song about just how deep sin runs in Psalm 51.

Well, here's one way that David sinned when he fled from Absalom. He left 10 concubines in the palace to "take care of it" while everyone else fled for their lives. Maybe he didn't intend for harm to come to them, but it did--they were basically publicy raped (2 Samuel 16:22).

David didn't treat these concubines like he would his own flesh and blood. He treated them like, well, like servants--except that he had actual servants that he loved more and treated better. Not uncommon in the ancient world, before the clarity of the gospel, but nevertheless.

So I was wondering this. Who are those in our lives that we don't really truly love, even though we may act like it? Who is there that we pretend to love and cherish, and yet when the going gets tough--we leave them behind. Who are the people that we have fellowship with every Sunday, smile and greet perhaps, but they are totally expendable to us?

You might say, well, not everyone is family! We can't treat everyone like flesh and blood! But Jesus treated us that way. He laid down His most precious life for us, and He calls us to see every other believer as our brother or sister--as flesh and blood.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Some Wedding Cake Leftovers

(nb: this should be consider part 2 of my earlier post.)

One of the most important times to keep in mind the reality of the wedding cake is in the midst of theological controversy. When discussing theological positions, or in thinking about those with which we disagree, it is important to remember all four layers of the cake, and to remember that we must always work from the bottom up. Let me explain with reference to a current theological brew-ha-ha.

N.T. Wright recently wrote a book on Justification that has caused quite a stir. He departs from the traditional understanding of Justification, and presents the case for a reading now commonly known (at least common to theologians) as the New Perspective on Paul. His book is notable is several regards, but not least for the way it covers all the layers of the cake.

The first half of the book, roughly 125 pages, discusses justification from a systematic theology standpoint. He defines what justification is, what it is not, how it relates to other doctrines (covenant, eschatology, Christology), what the component parts are (imputation, federal headship), etc. As you can see, the systematic discussion of justification is complex, but highly necessary. A few comments on application are interspersed, although that is not really the point of the book. And several of the topics require a discussion of biblical theology.

The second half of the book is dedicated to exegetical theology. In other words, recognizing that his new(ish) interpretation of justification must stand or fall based on the biblical evidence, he spends 125 pages (or so) discussing the key passages in Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans. The discussion of Romans alone receives almost 85 pages.

Whether or not Wright is right about all this is the question for another post, but methodologically, it is quite interesting. Wright has many critics, and many of them have gone to great lengths to point out how Wright is not clearly within the reformed tradition (historical theology), how his theology will have deleterious effects on people's lives (practical theology), or how he has misunderstood the theological categories (systematic theology).

But very few have attacked his understanding on the basis of his exegetical theology. And as Wright is correct to point out, exegesis is the foundation of the theological enterprise, and any critique or accusation of heresy must work from the bottom up. Or again, many are quick to point out that Wright is outside the bounds of the Westminster confession, or that he is far afield from Hodge or Calvin. But Wright is justified in responding - yes that's true, but I'm more in line with the scriptures. (Again, the question of if Wright is right about that claim must wait for another day, but I can appreciate the motivation!) In fact, Wright is now claiming the high ground of Sola Scriptura that the reformation tradition has held so dear.

If we see someone who appears to have a screwy systematic theology, as many have claimed Wright's theology of justification is screwy, then the first thing to do is to examine the foundation. If the foundation of exegesis is caddywompus, then of course the whole cake will be messed up, and we will have our explanation as to why everything looked odd to us. But if, upon examination, the foundation is solid, then we can examine the biblical theology and the systematic theology again with fresh eyes. Perhaps, where we thought the cake was crooked, we were really just holding our heads at a funny angle. Which is another way of saying that if the exegesis is correct, perhaps it is us who was wrong, and we need to adjust our own thinking, rather than accusing the other.

This is the real value of keeping the layers of the cake in order. If we do really believe in Sola Scriptura, that the Bible is the final arbiter of truth, then of course we must always consider potential heresy on the basis of the exegesis. Wright has done all his critics a huge favor in this last book, he has laid all his exegetical cards on the table. They are free for examination. If he is found to have laid a faulty foundation, perhaps misunderstood the historical context, or cherry picked the literary context, misapplied a Greek root-word, then the brew-ha-ha can end, and we will see clearly how this one mistake can transfer all the way up through the layers of theology. But on the other hand, we no longer have the luxury to simply criticize his systematic understanding, or his divergence from historical predecessors. He has tied his theology to the text, and it is to the text we must go.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Wedding Cake of Theology

Theology is like a wedding cake. And when done well, it is scrumptious and delicious. It's like a lovely four-tiered wedding cake. Oh, and it has a grooms cake on the side.

Believe it or not this is actually somewhat of a serious illustration. Because there at least five different types of theologies that we can be talking about when we talk about "theology." Most of the time we use the word "theology" in a fairly undifferentiated sense, and most of the time that works out just fine, but occasionally it is nice to be precise. There are five different things we are sometimes talking about when we discuss theology. Four of these stack one on top of the other, in the manner of a wedding cake, the fifth is related but separate, we'll call it the grooms cake.

Much like a four tier cake, it is essential that the layers are stacked in the correct order. You can imagine the disaster that would result if one put the smallest layer on the bottom, or the biggest on top. The bottom layer is foundational for the one above it, and the second layer in turn, is foundational for the layer on top of that one, etc. A visual aid would be nice here, but my art skills are pretty limited, so use your imagination.

The first (and foundational) layer is Exegetical Theology. Exegetical theology is what we are doing when we are talking about the meaning of specific verses, chapters, and books in the bible. When we discuss the literary context, the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew, the flow of the argument, and so on. This is the foundation of all theology. So long as we want our theology to be based on the Bible, we need to discuss what particular parts of the Bible mean. The rest of the theological cake rests on this.

The second layer is Biblical Theology. To engage is Biblical Theology, is to think about all the different parts of the bible, and put them together into a meaningful whole. It helps, in this regard, to remember that the Bible is a story with a plot, it has a trajectory. So when we think biblically-theologically about, say, the temple, we are not thinking about individual verses (although we need to have done that first!), we are thinking about the way the tabernacle was revealed on Mt. Sinai as a reflection of the garden of Eden, traveled through the wilderness, morphed into the Temple, was destroyed by Babylon, rebuilt by Zerubbabel, and replaced by Christ. Notice how was attempting to follow the biblical storyline, and to see and appreciate the twists and turns of the story, and effect of progressive revelation.

The third layer of the theological cake is Systematic Theology. Systematic theology as a discipline is now attempting to gather together everything we know from the bible about a particular topic and make a coherent sense of it. Again, this type of theology might not deal in detail with passages from the Bible, because it is assuming that that work has already been done.

The fourth and final layer of the cake is Practical Theology, also sometimes called Pastoral Theology, but it is practiced by all of us, not just pastors. All of us often engage in practical theology. It is what we are doing when we ask the question "How should we then live?" Once we have examined the biblical texts, become aware of the way the topic functions throughout the bible, and gathered all our knowledge together, then we are ready to put it into practice.

These four tiers are all important, and the order of them can not be changed, reversed or ignored, except to our own theological peril. But there is one more way we often talk about theology, and that is Historical Theology. This is what we are doing when we investigate when John Calvin thought about a particular issue, or how the Puritans viewed such-and-so. I consider this to be the grooms cake, because it is important, but not integrally related to the other four disciplines.

Perhaps an example would be helpful here. Say we are trying to think theologically about the Sabbath and its importance for the church today. We start at the bottom of the cake, by asking what does the Bible say about the Sabbath. So we carefully investigate Genesis 1-2, Exodus 16, 20, 31, Deut 5, Isaiah 58, Mark 2, John 5, Romans 14, Col 2, Heb 4, etc. This is the practice of Exegetical Theology. Next, we would step back and look at the trajectory. Was Sabbath observance of different importance at different periods of the covenant families life? How was it progressively revealed to Israel, and has the inauguration of the New Covenant changed how we think about it? This is Biblical Theology. The third step is to gather all our information together, and see what we can say from a systematic standpoint. Only after we have done all of these steps, are we in a position to ask how we are to live now? What should we do on Sunday afternoon? In other words, we can now pursue the task of relating the Bible to life, or doing Practical Theology.

And if you are still hungry, there is no reason to neglect the grooms cake, asking how different theologians throughout history have viewed the issue. This can be both interesting and informative, but we should remember to read with a discerning eye. Just because John Calvin wrote it, doesn't make it more sure than the Bible!

Let me explain why this cake is important. No one on earth is equally skilled at doing all five layers of theology, we all tend towards one or two, and are weaker in the others. Most pastors I know really excel at the top two tiers (systematics and practical), and of course, in order to be a pastor you need to know how to help people apply the Bible to their lives. But these pastors need to be humble in recognizing that they need help with the exegetical task, which is foundational to the whole enterprise. There are some pastors who really excel at exegesis, who love to read commentaries, who still know Greek and Hebrew five years after seminary. This is great because it is foundational, but they often need help in making practical application of the truths they discover to the lives of their parishioners.

It has been helpful to me when I read a particular theological piece to ask where it fits into the whole theological cake, what is supporting it, and what could potentially be the next step? Not all theology is done the same way. And the point of this exercise is not to say that one layer is the most important of all, but to say that it is absolutely vital that we have the whole cake!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fighting the Devil by Doing the Dishes

How do you imagine that the evil one will try to attack most Christians?

Most of us, when we think of spiritual warfare (if we think of spiritual warfare), probably think of some bizarre evil poltergeists of the ethereal world attacking missionaries on the front lines. Or perhaps you think of the blatant expressions of witchcraft, spiritism or paganism that exist here in the U.S. But according to Ephesians, we need to think a little closer to home.

Close to home, as in, in our homes. One of the classic Bible texts on the issue is the end of Ephesians 6. Paul says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Spiritual warfare is in fact a true reality (as Schaeffer would say, a true truth) that believers in Christ have to deal with. And it is not something that only effects the mission field (where is that again?).

It would seem that the thing which led Paul to write Ephesians 6:10-20 was in fact Ephesians 5:1-6:9. Paul had just finished his instructions for family relationships defined by the kingdom of God. He had been talking about husbands loving their wives, and wives submitting to their husbands. He had been talking about parents loving their children and children obeying their parents. And it seems to me that it was talk about these most basic of human relationships that led Paul to reflect on the fact that we as believers are under attack, and need desperately to put on the full armor of God.

Or again, in Ephesians 4:26-27 Paul had said that if we let the sun go down on our anger, then we are giving opportunity to the devil!

It's easy for us to think that in our highly technologized, squeaky clean suburban environs that the devil is nowhere to be found. He certainly wouldn't shop at Barnes and Noble.

But more than likely, the devil won't try to get you to renounce Christ all in one fell swoop. Instead he'll try to get you to watch TV instead of doing the dishes. He'll get you to harbor pride and savor bitterness, to not love your wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church. As Paul has just explained, a fully functional marriage relationship is a picture of the gospel, what would the evil one like to ruin more than that? The schemes of the evil one are powerful, but they are subtle. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil advises his devil-in-training to work on the Christians, and get them to think about how much that one certain look their mate gives bothers them, and to really stew on it. Sometimes its the littlest things that can give a foothold to the devil.

These are his schemes, and we need to put on the whole armor of God, lest we give in to the temptation to give that look when asked to vacuum.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Our Spiritual Immune Systems

One of the things I've learned about since Judah was born three months ago is 'Passive Immunity.'

When babies are born, they have very weak immune systems. As a result, they are extra susceptible to getting sick. This is why you have to be very careful with little babies, if they get sick, they have very few resources to fight it, and sometimes they have to go to the hospital.

However, one benefit of breastfeeding is that babies receive passive immunity. They have no antibodies of their own, but some of their mother's antibodies are passed along through the milk, so that the babies receive the benefit of their mother's immune systems. The babies on their own are small and weak, but their mothers are strong, and by feeding on their mothers, they receive the benefits of all the immunities their mothers have built up by fighting off sicknesses.

When new Christians are first converted (and sometimes for a long time afterward!), they have very weak spiritual immune systems. In fact, given what Paul says in Ephesians 6 about the attacks which the evil one mounts against believers, we are all much too weak in ourselves. We are susceptible to all sorts of spiritual attacks, temptations, and defeats. However, as we feed on Christ in the Word, we receive the benefits of his strength.

Christ is strong, and has earned by his years of obedience to the Father complete immunity from (victory over) the evil one and his attacks. We are weak, but through our union with Christ, we share in his strength. The more we know Christ, both the holiness of his character and the vitality of our union, the more we are strengthened to stand against the wiles of the devil. If we are lax about our feeding routine, we will remain weak, with only our own meager strength to live by.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bold Post about Preaching

I like books about preaching, and I think I like lesser known ones the best. For example, I think that Kindled Fire Zack Eswine is quite good. It's a look at Charles Spurgeon's preaching in its historical/cultural context, and calls us to bold, Spiritual, applicable proclamation of the word.

Of interest to me was his argument that Spurgeon did not live in a "golden age" of preaching but rather went against the grain in his day and received a lot of push-back. Of course, he is today referred to as the "Prince of Preachers" (a term that really should go to Jesus, but my point is that people like him).

I recently began reading Tongues Aflame by Roger Wagner, who is an OPC pastor in Chula Vista, California. I attended his church for a while and remember seeing the book float around in manuscript form.

He says that the key characteristic of apostolic preaching was boldness. The word translated "boldness," he says, is the word most frequently applied to preaching in the book of Acts. And Paul famously asks for prayer in Ephesians 6 that he would speak the word with boldness. Without boldness, our preaching simply isn't biblical; so we better figure out what that means!

Wagner goes on to clarify that those with "bold" personalities are surprisingly often NOT the boldest preachers. Boldness is not a matter of personality or tone, but simply the willingness to directly, clearly speak the truth of God from His word. And it is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit (man, can't we do anything on our own?).

Biblically, he draws on the example of Peter. He claimed to be bold, he said he would follow Jesus to death, but petered out. It wasn't until the Holy Spirit took over in Acts 2 that Peter was truly able to preach with genuine, Spiritual boldness.

Lord, grant us pastors grace to boldly speak Your word. And thank you, Lord, for those who do.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

You - Yes, You - Bless the Lord!

Psalm 134:

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!
May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!

It may seem obvious, but servants of the Lord need to bless the Lord. I was reading this the other morning as I was sitting in my church office, and I thought, "Hey, this means me."

This psalm applies universally, but is focused in particular on "full time" ministers. We need to begin each day and each new minute with blessings to the Lord on our lips. We need to constantly praise the One we serve, remembering that it's His goodness - His blessedness - that led us to serve Him in the first place. We need all our service to flow out of a real delight in Him, and desire for others to know Him.

Unfortunately, at least for me, we can fail to bless the Lord in our busyness to help others bless the Lord. Does that make sense? No, of course not. But it happens!

What a great reminder. What a great way to start each day.

I think it's great that the psalms ends - rather than begins - with a prayer for blessing on those who serve. Because there is no gain in serving the Lord apart from blessing the Lord.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Calvinist Mystery

Back in 1994 I came to embrace what is commonly called Calvinism and is better termed "the doctrines of grace." This helped me take passages like Ephesians 1:1-14 and 2:1-10, Romans 8 and 9, the Gospel of John, and many other passages at face value. I no longer had to ignore or explain away the New Testament teaching concerning predestination, election, mankind's deadness concerning spiritual matters, etc. There was clarity.

At that time, I would have been wary of any talk of "mystery" in the debate concerning God's sovereignty and man's free? will. It would seem any ground taken away from God would have to be parceled out to man, which didn't seem right.

Eventually, however, D.A. Carson helped me see that there is indeed a mystery. It is not so much a mystery concerning who wins in the battle of God's will and man's will, the classic tension. The Bible, I think, makes the answer to that one clear. Instead, it is a mystery within God Himself: He is both sovereign (His will reigns supreme) and personal (He interacts with humans, meaningfully).

So, in the Bible we see both these realities at work: Jesus was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world; those who nailed Him to the cross did so according to the eternal decree of God (Acts 2:23). Yet Jesus cried out in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, pouring out His heart while surrendering to the Father's will. No Stoicism. Or, look at the missionary passion in the book of Acts: apostles who knew God was responsible for anyone's eyes being open to the gospel (Acts 13:48) yet prayed and preached up a storm to see it happen.

God is sovereign, and God is personal.

God calls the shots, and God truly, meaningfully responds to prayer.

What is commonly called Arminianism actually seeks to alleviate the mystery. This position claims, "Here's how it works: God looks down the corridor of time and sees who will choose Him; then, He chooses them." This attempts to give God's will and man's will equal footing, but really end up selling the farm to man--at the crucial moment, God is passive. While this sounds like a theological option, I don't think this is what the Scriptures as a whole teach.

Meanwhile, Calvinists can try to alleviate mystery another way. I think I've seen this more in deeds than in words, and it's what drives those who are more free-willish in their thinking crazy. It's when Calvinists undermine prayer, preaching, or sacrificial living by an attitude that speaks louder than words, "God will do what God will do, I will go back to my books now." It's not so much about how one is saved (it's all of God!) but of the means God uses. For example, He uses the impassioned prayers of those who love their friends and desire to see them saved--in short, he uses us!

I should note that God's choosing is also mysterious. The Bible refers to God's choice being based on love, and being for His glory, but does not give us an algorithm. The biggest mystery is that God would set His love on any of us! It certainly does not permit someone dead in sin to boast in the gift of resurrection life.

The Reformed tradition calls this the mystery of providence. And it uses the term "secondary causes" to refer to those means by which God accomplishes His will, including the examples I've given here already -- prayer, preaching, and so forth.

So here is my position: There is a mystery, but it is a Calvinist mystery. And fully believing in God's sovereignty is actually necessary for there to be a mystery.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Speaking as a Christian...

The Bible has A LOT to say about the way we speak. In fact, one could probably argue that the way we speak should be one of the primary differences marking out those who believe in Christ.

How then should we speak? I was thinking about three recent experiences lately, about Christians talking about how to talk.

1. One of my professors from college once decided that he was no longer going to tell people he was proud of them. Instead, he would say that he was humbled by what they had been able to accomplish. Interesting. Pride, of course, is a sin. And though we all sort of know that we mean it in a good way, and not a self exalting way, still we should ask, why are we using the language of vice to express a virtue?

2. Christians often talk about Jesus coming and turning the accepted world of social norms upside down. N.T. Wright suggests that we instead recognize that it is the unbelieving world which has turned everything upside down, and Jesus came to turn it back right-side up. This flows into the third one...

3. A friend of mine used to often express the Christians sojourn in this world as being "in the enemy camp." I once suggested to him that perhaps we should say instead that the enemy is in our camp. After all, this is my father's world, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Why give away the whole thing to unbelievers?

Simple suggestions like these about the way we speak are important. As my rhetorically inclined brother will no doubt attest, the way we use language not only expresses a worldview, it shapes and creates a worldview. Speaking as a Christian means finding simple ways to create and maintain a Christian point of view in an increasingly upside down world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ministry Endurance

I was wandering the Charlotte airport the other day, taking some time to pray as I waited for my flight to board. And as I prayed, I began begging (I know it sounds unseemly) God for endurance and for zeal over the long haul.

It was one of those times when God sent an answer to prayer, or at least a fairly clear message, quickly.

I wandered past one of those book and magazine stores, and my eye caught a spinning rack filled with Christian books. Couldn't help but take a look of course, and at the very bottom of the spinning rack--underneath the books about visits to heaven and hell--there was a tiny paperback book about Christian leadership. It was by a guy named Jeff Iorg (I've never heard of him, have you?).

There was a chapter in his book called "Sustaining Passion." I read through the entire chapter.

What he basically said was this. Sustaining passion in ministry is actually about sustaining compassion for people. Don't try to take the direct route--maintaining passion for ministry per se. Instead, invest in the people around you, love them, spend meaningful time with them so that you truly like them. It is this that will sustain you.

He looked at Jesus through this lens. He wrote about how much time Jesus spent with people--by intentionality, but also by the nature of the culture of the day. The lifestyles of Jesus' day required much lengthier times with people as you walked together, ate together, etc. Much different that the quick runs we do into people's lives, as if they were 7-11 stores.

I hadn't ever heard this path to ministry endurance prescribed. It struck me as quite true. Endurance in ministry is not about being passionate for the concept or systems of ministry, even less is it about being passionate for our chosen career path. Dare I say, it's not about being passionate for theology unapplied or for pure worship or for being missional or for any other isolated cause. It's about having compassion for people, so that we really truly want to bring them to Jesus again and again.

I realize this is only one part of the Great Commandment to love God and love others. Surely ministry endurance is about both sides--and this post has done no justice to the absolute desperate necessity of ever growing in our love for our Savior God. And in fact, Jeff Iorg mentioned in his little chapter that Jesus even removed himself from people to spend time with his heavenly Father. But that will need to be a different post for a different day.

Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross. Surely that joy involved his people, those for whom he died, else he would have never set foot on our globe. Let's follow those footsteps.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Theological Question of Alvin Greene

Disclaimer: This is a blog of theological reflection, not political rambling. Any political opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily all moose in general. These opinions, while probably correct, are free to be disagreed with, and should not be the cause of hating anybody. Especially me.

South Carolina has been the state of political weirdness lately. Most recently we have Alvin Greene. Mr. Greene is an unemployed veteran, who came out of nowhere to win the democratic nomination for the Senate. Many people are suspicious (namely the democrats), because, to be blunt, he doesn't seem like he knows what he's doing. Moreover, some people are worried, and Christians are beginning to engage in the necessary theological reflection.

The is at least one camp of people that are rightly concerned. Because the scriptures tell us that our government officials are God's servants, and they do not bear the sword for nothing, it is important that we take elections seriously. We are right to take seriously our responsibility to elect those candidates who will fulfill their obligations.

But there is a second camp of people who see the tragedy even deeper. Because the scriptures speak of the authorities that be, being 'appointed' by God, perhaps the nomination of Alvin Greene is worse than we thought. Perhaps God is putting Greene in a position of power, because he is the kind of candidate that we deserve. That is, we no longer deserve good leadership, and the appointment of Greene is going to be the beginning of the end.

Both of these positions have biblical truth within them. And hopefully they both lead to concern and prayer that God will be gracious. However, there is also a third perspective that I think has even more merit.

One of my college profs had this remark on his blog... "The problem, of course, is that no one has the capacity to see the relative insignificance of the elections, except the poor. They know that they will be excluded no matter who sits in what chamber to cast votes. One can not have justice without just persons, and one cannot have just persons unless one begins with proper worship of the Triune God."

Indeed, if any good can come from the seeming absurdity of Greene's nomination (and it can!), it is that he is a stark reminder to Christians not to put our faith in the political system! Neither democrat, nor republican, nor any other political party in all creation has the power to be the instrument of the renewal of creation. Such is the task of the church, which is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the church which holds the keys of the kingdom. It is the church which will inherit the new heavens and the new earth. It is the church which is a living preview of the New Creation, where truth is told, people are treated fairly, all are loved. Such things can only come about through the gospel of Christ, and 'proper worship of the Triune God.'

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Psalm 20:7

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fear. Blessings.

I've been making my way through the psalms this year, often reading several at a time. One of the benefits of this is seeing how certain themes are clustered together, so that several psalms will hit the same target from different angles. Or they might even offset each other.

For example, Psalms 127, 128, 129, 130 speak of God's blessings on the righteous--but speak of our absolute dependence on the Lord for blessing (127), our need to fear the Lord to obtain blessing (128), and that even the blessed man is at times afflicted (129). He hopes in the Lord (130) as he awaits God's promised blessings.

Also, I noticed a significant connection between some familiar verses in Psalm 128 and 130:

"Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways!" (Psalm 128:1)

"But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." (Psalm 130:2)

Time for one more observation? I was thinking based on 128:1 that we often ask God to bless people we love. Well, maybe we should ask God to help them fear Him. The blessings will indeed follow.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Humility in a Time of Twitter

He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
Psalm 25:9

Inasmuch as I consider pride and self-interest to be the root of all other sins, I also consider that humility is the beginning of godliness.

A humble spirit is one that desires for God to be glorified in all things, "He must become greater, I must become less." A humble spirit also desires the good of others, and desires to see them happy, even when it comes at a personal cost to oneself. It considers others as more important that itself (Phil 2:3). A humble person is willing to set aside their own interests, in order that the focus might be elsewhere. A humble person does not want to be the center of attention.

As I've thought this week about what it means for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, I realized that it takes a lot of humility. To sacrifice your own desires in order to build others up. In fact, humility is really just another word for love.

Humility is a difficult virtue. Most of us are hard wired to pursue our own desires at all costs, and to avoid personal sacrifice for the sake of others. I know that for myself, I need to find more practices, and surround myself with more influences that teach humility, rather than those that feed my illusion that I am, in fact, the center of the universe.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:5

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is Creativity a Pastoral Gift?

I suspect that creativity is an underappreciated pastoral gift.

We live in a “creative age,” and the church has incorporated artistry into its worship and websites, but I’m not talking about graphic design or video.

I’m thinking, rather, of a pedagogical creativity that aids preaching and teaching. Jesus was extremely creative, as the parables reveal. These were not just cute stories thrown in to keep the hearers’ attention; these were potent illustrations that challenged and even condemned the hearers. And they were tightly packed, which is another way of saying they packed a lot of punch.

Creativity is also a great benefit for how we structure our teaching as well. Do all our messages follow a predictable pattern, or do we have a variety of means by which to draw people into the text or topic at hand? When we teach a class, have we considered some unique ways to keep interest or reinforce the lessons? Creativity can be as simple as “mixing things up” with testimonies, times of prayer, or hands-on application. Yet at the same time, we need to be pastorally wise and not merely clever; creativity has to be in the service of instruction.

Here are a few other areas where creativity comes in handy…
- Leading prayer. Don’t be rigid, but be creative with how you guide others in prayer. Pray through Psalms, follow the pattern of the Lord’s prayer, read (or sing) the words of a rich hymn and follow it up with praise/prayer, take requests, change course midstream, don’t take requests, gather in a circle around someone and pray for them, take walks through the neighborhood and pray for it, etc.
- Developing outreach or other ministries. I think being “missional” involves prayerful creativity. What works elsewhere probably won’t work in your church. Nor will it be what your church needs. But as you pray, there might be an idea that surfaces that is uniquely fit to your community and circumstances.
- Sharing the gospel. Boy does this require creativity. No two conversations are the same!
- Children. I think this is obvious… and maybe the lesson here is that it needs to be more obvious to us when we’re dealing with adults!

Thinking about Jesus again. Not only were his words the most creative in history (partly this is because truth seems creative when you are swimming in falsehood), but he also “mixed things up” a bit didn’t he? He healed by touch, by spit, by mud. He gave some prepared lessons and grabbed teachable moments. He prayed for and with people. He put children in the center and others on the spot. He gave examples, set an example, used parables, pronounced woes, pointed at temples, surprised and tested listeners, gave away food, and instituted sacraments. And he approached subject matter in unique, provocative ways—but always grounded in truth.

Unless there are any objections, I move that we approach ministry with both wisdom and creativity.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How (not) to use words.

One of the things I've been impressed with since studying at Erskine Seminary, is the desire of my professors to be Christian Scholars. Not only that they are scholars who are Christians, and not only that there scholarship is focused on Christian issues, but the way that they strive to do all of their scholarship in a Christian way. That is, they seek to represent their opponents fairly. They make honest efforts not to exaggerate claims. They undertake scholarship as a means to sanctification, not a means to publication.

Even in 'regular life,' that is, outside the world of academia, I've noticed the easy tendency to not represent others fairly when we disagree with their position. Even in the church this happens as we discuss the differences between various theological positions. Two words stand out to me which are commonly misused.

The first is the word "legalism." We all know legalism is a bad thing, and we are quick to pin the label on those we disagree with. But do we really know what it means? Technically, the word "legalism" means the belief that people are saved by keeping the law (of Moses). I don't believe I've ever met a Christian of any stripe who believes this. However, we often throw the word around in an informal way to describe anyone who we believe puts too much emphasis on obedience rather than grace and mercy. But I can tell you, I've been preaching through Ephesians, and Paul puts an awful lot of emphasis on living a holy life. Does this make Paul a legalist? Me genoito!! Paul believes firmly that salvation is by grace, but that the life of faith also leads to a life of obedience.

I propose that we take more care in using the label 'legalist.' Let's honestly appraise the full position of those with whom we may disagree, then give them the benefit of the doubt if we are uncertain. A zeal for holy living should not automatically be equated with legalism.

The second word is related, though opposite, "antinomiansim." This slightly less common word refers to those who believe that all forms of law have been abdicated by Christ, and that there is no expected ethic for those saved by grace. Those this careful definition is rarely used. More commonly, the word is thrown around in an imprecise, pejorative sense, as a label for those who emphasize our freedom in Christ. Again, in my experience, I don't believe I have ever met a true antinomian, who believes that the grace of Christ really can lead to any conceivable life. I have, however, met people who believe it is ok to drink beer. And more often than not, it is these people, who get labeled, by those whose convictions differ.

Again, I propose that we exercise more care, and more importantly, more Christian love in the way we discuss those with whom we may disagree. What scripture are they attempting to explain, understand, or apply, that we have not thought about as carefully? I believe that if we speak more carefully, it will not only help to demonstrate Christian unity, but also open our eyes to areas of sanctification and growth that we have hitherto be blinded to.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Day of the Groom

Several years ago my friend Matt got married. The wedding was beautiful and memorable, if slightly unconventional.

The minister took his place at the center of the stage. Matt stood alone in the aisle facing him. The minister began by acknowledging the inviolable place of the bride as the queen of wedding day festivities. Everything is about the bride. This is her day, if the bride ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. And yet, the minister continued, treading now in dangerous waters, this is not the biblical model. In the bible, the wedding day is The Day of The Groom!

And indeed it is so. Consider the description in Revelation 19 of The Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The consummation of heaven and earth is described as the wedding banquet uniting Christ (the groom) to the church (the bride). This is a wedding ceremony designed to honor and glorify the accomplishments of the groom. It is he who has gone out to find himself a wife, he who has won her over and pledged himself to her, and it is he who has purified his bride, in order that she might become his radiant wife! The bride invites her guests to join in celebrating the glory of the groom, and her happiness in him.

Consider this image a bit further. In the OT the covenantal relationship with God and his people Israel was occasionally described as a marriage covenant, Israel was engaged to by the Lord's. And yet, too often, this metaphor was the more memorable because of the way it was used to heighten the shame of Israel in her disobedience. Hosea famously is commanded to marry a prostitute as an object lesson demonstrating the spiritual whoredom of Israel. In disobeying, and seeking after other gods, Israel was acting faithless in regard to her engaged Lord.

What would the groom to with his unfaithful bride? He would take upon himself the responsibility of cleansing her, purifying her, forgiving her, and getting her all cleaned up until she was worthy to be his own wife. Ephesians 5 says as much,
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
At the wedding supper of the lamb, although we, as the bride of Christ, will be presented to him "holy and without blemish" all the glory will go the our faithful, loving, sacrificial, glorious groom. And when people look at the bride in her splendor, they will marvel at the power of the groom. And we will get to enjoy his goodness forever.

Then the minister, having offered some such explanation, looked at Matt and said, "Go claim your bride." Matt turned around and walked back down the aisle, and out the back door of the church. We sat in silence. A few moments later, all the shutters on the enormous church windows were opened, and the previously dim sanctuary was filled with light. Then Matt appeared again at the back of the church with his bride on his arm, and marched triumphantly up the aisle. The groom had won his bride and she was beautiful. We celebrated, and looked forward to the day...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Having an Answer

Do you want to share the gospel with others? Do you want to have an answer to those who question the faith? Here's the most important ingredient: assurance of your salvation.

The psalmist prays for this in Psalm 119:

"Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
your salvation according to your promise;
then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
for I trust in your word." (vv.41-42)

Similarly, David prayed in Psalm 51: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit, then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you" (vv.12-13).

It's not just an Old Testament concept, either. Far from it, in fact. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues in Joy Indescribable that the "power from on high" Jesus promised in Acts 1 is expressed primarily in the assurance of salvation. The "power" is not speaking in tongues, prophecy, or miracles, though all those are wonderful. Assurance of salvation -- aka faith -- is the fundamental gift of the Holy Spirit that is then expressed in many different ways, resulting in bold, powerful, effective witness to others.

I tend to agree with Lloyd-Jones, and with the psalmists.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Deeply Troubled

Yesterday, President Obama closed his prepared statements concerning the BP oil spill with these chilling words:

This oil spill is an unprecedented disaster. The fact that the source of the leak is a mile under the surface, where no human being can go, has made it enormously difficult to stop. But we are relying on every resource and every idea, every expert and every bit of technology, to work to stop it. We will take ideas from anywhere, but we are going to stop it.

There is a parallel here to humanity's ultimate problem, namely our problem with sin and evil. This condition is also deep below the surface, pouring out hazardous effects, and "very difficult to stop" (understatement!).

In this sense, the oil spill is not unprecedented but precedented.

This oil spill is deeply troubling. It is an example of how unseen human sins (whether selfishness, sloppiness, or greed) spill over and produce tangible, huge, deadly results. The prophet Hosea said that because of human sin, animals and fish die (Hosea 4:3)--seems like a strange verse until something like this takes place!

Also deeply troubling is the idea that we, as a nation, would rely solely on human willpower and ability to solve such a problem. President Obama referred to relying on "every" Another prophet, Isaiah, pronounced woe upon those who "rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD" (Isaiah 31:1).

I once engraved a Bible with the slogan "No Horses!" Unfortunately, this is a longstanding American tradition. We have a "can do" attitude, which serves one well when combined with praise--but serves any person or nation poorly when combined with pride.

I pray for a resolution to this disaster. I praise God for a resolution, through Jesus, of humanity's ancient and disastrous decision to turn away from our gracious Creator.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Like Shopping on an Empty Stomach

Have you ever gone grocery shopping on an empty stomach? I have, and it's not a good thing. Suddenly, junk foods which might otherwise hold no appeal to me have a strange allure. Pre-prepared items which I normally ignore train their tractor beam on me, and I am powerless to resist. There is no shortage of temptations in the grocery store, and when I am hungry my will power is at its weakest.

What is the solution? Should I just grit my teeth, furrow my brow, and keep walking through the junk food aisle, determined to do my darnedest? Do I just need to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, strengthen my will power, and do the right thing? Thankfully, no. My will power is not much to write home about, but there is a much easier way to avoid the power of temptation. Eating. If I've eaten a good meal at home before I go, I can cruise the aisles of the grocery store with ease, impervious to the temptations around me. When my stomach is contentedly full of good food, the temptations of bad food are weak.

Living a faithful Christian life is the same way. Normal everyday life is full of temptations. Temptations to lust, temptations to greed, temptations to anger, discontentment, irritability, meanness, pride, you name it. And let's face it, some of these temptations are strong. They catch me in their tractor beam and try to pull me in. They promise happiness, joy, fulfillment, meaning and significance in life. Everything will just be some much better, and my life so much richer if I just give in a little bit. Or so they want me to believe.

How do I resist such temptations? Again, my will power is nothing special. I could just try to work up within myself an extra batch of resolve, really hunker down, and hope to do better next time. But as we all know, this will never work. I need stronger medicine.

The key is to eat a good spiritual meal before going out and facing the world. If I can get my heart to be happy in God, content with his goodness, thankful for the grace of Christ, and moved by his undeserved love, then my heart will not be looking to be filled elsewhere. The power over temptation is to starve it at the source. If my heart is empty, and my soul hungry for meaning, then I am susceptible to all sorts of temptations and false promises. But when my heart is full, and my soul satisfied with the love of Christ, then the empty promises are more easily ignored.

The key is not to rely on my own will power, that would be like purposefully shopping on an empty stomach and trying not to come home with any junk food. The key is to know the grace of Christ in the gospel, and to put it to good use!